Revisiting 110%

In March of last year, I wrote an article discussing a prevalent issue in the software industry. There was (and still is) a serious issue with underdeveloped engineers going in half-cocked and trying to BS their way into a job. In that discussion, I praised my new-at-the-time job for having the guts to only hire folks we felt 110% confident about. I said I wouldn’t change that hiring policy for the world, and I stand by that sentiment.

Sentimentality will only get you so far in the business world. In the year between that article and now, the company has continued to grow. It’s quickly approaching 100 employees, and the effects are really starting to reverberate throughout the company culture, infrastructure, and team dynamics. The painful truth is that we need more developers to keep up with the business. No matter how skilled, how resourceful, or how dedicated the current team is, there’s only so much work we can do in the time we have.

The Agony of Growth

For months we worked extra hours, skipped lunches, and pushed ourselves as hard as we could to meet deadlines. Burnout was inevitable, and code quality dropped. Combined with the lack of a dedicated team lead, we were struggling. We had suddenly gone from being an A-grade shop to a C-grade shop in a matter of months. The worst part? We still bore all the A-grade expectations, so we constantly fell short. Morale took a nosedive, and the company’s faith in our ability to execute projects tanked.

I could talk for thousands of words about the environment that lead our team to where it ended up. Ultimately, however, I can sum it up it only two: growing pains. The team simply has not grown as fast as the rest of the company. We quickly recognized that there was a systemic problem, but none of us were really empowered to fix it. Eventually the business came to accept that we simply weren’t able to keep up with demand, and they chose to rectify it by hiring more developers (and installing a team lead, but that’s not pertinent to the point).

A Tortured Metaphor

Saying that your company only hires candidates it’s 110% confident in is like saying that you only date models. It’s technically true if you’re not dating anyone. In the real world, people have needs and so do businesses. Candidates (just like potential dates) are more than just their first impression and looks. Often, you can’t see their true potential until you’ve given them a chance to get comfortable.

Dating metaphor aside, interviews are a pretty piss-poor way of hiring people. The interviewee gets nervous. The practical test is always either too easy or too esoteric. Interviewers are people, and people are complicated animals that form their opinions based partially on facts and observations but also decades worth of stereotypes and preconceptions. Hell, even the interviewer’s mood and personal life play a huge part in their impression of the candidate. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. “I don’t fall victim to petty distractions like that. I’m a professional.” Guess what? You’re lying to yourself. Just because you don’t see the effects they have on your perception doesn’t mean they’re not there. What I’m saying is that interviews are like marrying a person based solely on a two-hour meeting with them over lunch.

This all conspires to make the “110% confidence” metric a bit hazy. I won’t sugar-coat it: I had major concerns with some of the company’s newer hires for the team. In one case, I gave a “no hire” recommendation. That guy has turned out to be one of the most productive, hard-working members of the team. His technical skills started out rusty but have quickly sharpened. Now I consider him one of the most instrumental members of our team. I wasn’t 110% confident in him when he was interviewing, but I am now.

So, does this mean I’ve completely reversed my stance on hiring? Not at all. If anything, the experiences over the past year have only hardened my resolve. What has happened, though, is I’ve broadened my definitions a bit. Not to beat a dead horse, but we still only hire people who are smart and get things done. Now we’re just giving people more of a chance to prove themselves. Rapidly-growing businesses like ours don’t have the luxury of—to reuse the dating metaphor—only dating models. Models tend to be self-absorbed and narcissistic anyway. Instead, we’re giving the guy- or girl-next-door the opportunity to take off their glasses, get a makeover, and walk into the proverbial prom like a bombshell…

… maybe I’ve taken this metaphor too far.